509: Isaac Newton by Michael White

by Gerard

509.2: White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. New York: Basic Book, 1999. 361 pp. ISBN 978-0-738-20143-6.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Science
  • 509: Historical treatment
  • +.2: Biography

You could fill an entire room with works on Isaac Newton—the man who heralded a new age of scientific thinking, regulated the cosmos, and formulated a new kind of math in the process. There are works covering his fueds with Liebniz, his dealings with the Royal Society, his odd experiments with bodkins, and so forth. I even have a book on his time as a anti-counterfeiter working as the Warden of the Royal Mint. But, this one is special. This one claims that it was his ardent love of alchemy and all things mystical that helped to usher in a new age of physics.

Michael White’s Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer starts with the supposition that for centuries the life of Newton was surrounded by a halo effect. Because of his contribution to science and science’s eventual segue into the Industrial Revolution, Newton has been long praised as the scientific equivalent of St. John, spreading the word of science to push back the theological explanation for the universe.

In the 1960s, however, documents came to light describing Newton experimentation with the occult, with mystical texts that he used in alchemical research. He was doing what was trying to do—turn ordinary materials into gold. Somehow, in the modern age, this is seen as contrary to having good moral character. And when we do find a historical figure dabbling in the occult, there is a keen tendency to write it off as a flight of fancy. We should take a person’s good with their odd. Even White doesn’t hide his contempt very well.

Overall, the book was good. The history was sound and the sources fairly legitimate. There are a few times when the author understands that some of the recesses of history are dark, but chooses to insert wishful thinking into them anyway. These are only minor distractions. The premise that Newton’s alchemy and his natural philosophy were necessary and symbiotic studies is an interesting one, and one that I think needs further exploration by a more balanced hand.

P.S. I’m away from home this week, so I’ve got a bit more time on my hands (no household chores), and should be able to post a more frequently than usual. I’ve brought along some interesting books for this trip. I hope you’ll enjoy.